The Holy Game: God Plays on Super Bowl Sunday
Denver Broncos quarterback and outspoken man of faith Tim Tebow may have lost his chance for this year’s Super Bowl ring three weeks ago, but if you think that was a season-ender for the holier voices of football, brother, you don’t know this game. The Super Bowl is a hairsbreadth away from a pulpit sermon: the game in which Tony Dungy won XLI “the Lord’s way,” Most Valuable Player Drew “Breesus” Brees declared that “God is great” in XLIV, and the bookies had God as the 3/2 favorite to be thanked first by XLV’s MVP.
The Super Bowl is merely the sport’s high holiday. The entire season is filled with talk of the spirit. Some of the sport’s most electric non-Super Bowl moments have been christened “the Immaculate Reception,” “the Holy Roller,” and “the Music City Miracle.” And even regular season games often don’t end without one all-or-nothing “Hail Mary.”
When the topic of faith and football comes up, though, commentators admit that it seems a rather odd place for the gent from Galilee to show his face. After all, what does a violent, competitive, money-driven spectacle have to do with a man who talked meekness, peace, and poverty? That odd cultural mash-up seems to get thrown into sharp relief around this time every year, whether through a controversial Super Bowl ad, a new church promotional gimmick, or the very public faith and private foibles of a team, coach, or player.
But those who quibble with the national sacrament of football should simmer down. Big spectacle games are made for professions of faith, and holy language is exactly the right fit. The “sacred game” has been our earnest, mortal invitation to the divine since time immemorial. Though pigskin may not be kosher, reverence is certainly called for. Veteran sportswriter Robert Lipsyte had it right when he tried to squash our perennial ambivalence with a comforting dash of dogma:
Any Given Sunday is reserved for those who have been saved, who have accepted that so long as there is an American Empire, football will be its religion and the Super Bowl its Holy Day.Can I hear an Amen?
When fans praise the Lord at the game or when the quarterback sees God at work on the field, they have the anthropological record in their corner. Peoples across all times and cultures have reserved a space in the bleachers for the Almighty. Consider the sacred courts of the Aztecs and Mayans, where ulama was played with a ball symbolizing the sun and the players themselves represented the forces of life and death. For the year’s most important games, players were decapitated, their blood feeding the cosmic order and their skulls hung on ready-made courtside racks like championship banners. Or consider the sumo match: even as it’s practiced today, after thousands of years, the mat still calls for ritual sand purification and a ceremonial stomping to scare away ominous spirits. This is prayer-as-sport, according to historians, and was conducted for the amusement of the gods.